For the last few summers, my friend Kathy has traveled to Ethiopia on a short-term mission with her church. The other day, she mentioned that her church trained the travelers to absorb the Ethiopian culture through this filter: Is it wrong? Or is it just different?
I wish I’d had that filter when our family first moved to Hong Kong and I was reeling from culture shock. One morning, I remember trying, numerous times, to get into an elevator. I grew more and more indignant as people shoved past me to get into the elevator and then the doors would close. Again and again. It took me a while, but I finally “got it.” In a crowded Asian city, you don’t wait politely for your turn. You go!
But here was the real lesson: It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t wrong. It was just different from a westernized “queue” of waiting your turn for an elevator.
Kathy’s comment applies to more than advice for overseas traveling. “That thought has helped me in countless ways,” she said. “It’s even helped my marriage. When my husband does something I don’t like or I don’t understand, I’ve started to ask myself if it was really so wrong . . . or just different from how I would have handled it.”
What struck me about Kathy’s comment was that it provided a frame to developing tolerance, something that has become a rather complicated topic in today’s world. Some things are wrong. Most things are just different.
The tricky part is knowing which is which.
What about you? Have you traveled to another country and experienced culture shock? Looking back, was it wrong? Or was it different? Would love to hear your memory!